Here's a quote for
your frontal lobe to swallow:
"There's something fundamentally undemocratic about charging money for communications..."
Those words come from page 129 of Cory Doctorow's novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Doctorow is a big advocate of universal accessibility to communications technology and free speech through computers, phones, and other emerging tools for talking. Libraries are too.
Two major things are happening to information and the communications technologies that allow people to send and receive it:
The amount of information on the Internet is growing exponentially. Some of that information is accurate and usable for individuals researching facts and reasonable arguments. A lot of it is not. Much of that information is also buried by both search engines, and the daily cascade of writings, sounds, photos, and videos, which users upload onto the Internet daily.
Many public and private instituions are trying to limit the access and flow of information. Corporations try to make information scarce so they can make money by charging for it. All three branches of the US government make or perpetuate laws that limit the sharing of information. Sometimes, these codified limits exist to cover up government activities. Other times, they benefit big businesses, such as publishers and music companies, which need not exist after the advent of new technologies that allow users to make and distribute their work.
Libraries organize and enable equal and open access to information for everyone. While corporations and government entities increasingly limit access to information technology for institutional gain, libraries will become more necessary to all US citizens as purveyors of free speech, democracy, equalizers of opportunity, and the free flow of information.
Any true democracy encourages active, civil discussion among its
citizens about issues that affect society. In order to
facilitate that kind of dialog in a government, "of the people,
by the people, and for the people" (Lincoln), a democracy--or
republic--must allow for the expression of diverse perspectives
through freedom of speech.
Fortunately, the founding fathers of the United States understood that a government, by its nature, wants to eliminate viewpoints,which don't overtly support its doctrines. That's why American revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison made the 1st Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances (U.S. Const. amend. I, sec 1).
In spite of the US founding fathers' democratically necessary ideals, political and corporate power mongers continue to chip away at Americans' rights to convey and receive information--i.e. speak--freely.
Congresspeople can alter any law they want with a majority vote. Corporate lobbyists bribe congresspeople into making laws, which give big businesses an unfair advantage. Oftentimes, distribution companies like Sony or Warner Brothers, who have no real purpose after the advent of personal computing, convince our lawmakers to restrict the flow of information through electronic pathways with Digital Rights Management (DRM) laws (Doctorow 27-37). If congress doesn't pass laws to give distribution companies an unfair advantage, then these corporations build restrictive hardware, media (such as regional DVDs), and software, in order to monopolize the flow of information. After all, these unnecessary corporate middlemen see what's happening to the publishing industry.
Big publishers, as we know them, have begun to nose dive faster toward their inevitable demise. Like electronic technology distribution companies, publishers are pretty much unnecessary these days. Whereas these book printers still claim to advocate fine art and creativity by nature, they have become business-focused for the most part.
Businesses put increasing profit before every other kind of societal gain. To amp-up their profits, publishing businesses have been printing formulaic, watered-down material for decades now. As a result, consumers can purchase many more, less creative books, which rehash topics or plots that publishers think will yield money. However, like a locust swarm feeding on a dwindling crop of consumer cash, this sales tactic is also killing publishers.
Already, consumers have very little surplus cash to buy books that contain reused subject matter. People can only afford so many formulaic stories for $20 to $30 a pop. These exorbitant book prices cause many people to scoff and turn away from purchasing anything, but the most important texts of our time. However, important books are becoming increasingly rare due to publishers' fear of investing in innovative, non-standard ideas found in potential "classics." Therefore, consumers have even less incentive to actually buy a book at a store.
What is an 'important' book?' I don't know. However, I believe that importance has something to do with historical significance , novelty, and usefulness. How many cloned books on self-help or romance does one culture need before the information therein becomes excessive, cheap, and nearly useless beyond mind-numbing, throw-away entertainment? Not many. Consumers are becoming wise to the publishing industry's sales tactics, but they're still willing to read formulaic books--as long as they're available at libraries.
Libraries have collective purchasing power. These institutions pool tax money, create a vast and varied collection of information through physical and electronic means, and they make this amalgam of communication materials available to the world--give or take. But libraries only need so many en vogue cooking and fitness books for their collections. Plus, even the most well-funded libraries are facing declining revenue these days.
libraries, nor single consumers can afford every popular book clone
that comes out. Nonetheless, the big publishers continue to
grind more of these "sure bets" out every year.
Meanwhile, independent publisher idealists, who still believe in the
transformational power of art and ideas, go bankrupt due to lack of
ability to market, distribute, and manipulate lawmakers on a massive
Despite spending thousands of hours honing their craft and their works, most authors don't get paid much either. This, too, is changing.
Fat publishers, music corporations, and big movie-making businesses are all finding it hard to increase their profit exponentially these days. This is due to the fact that individuals can publish their own materials on the Internet. Innovative businesses and artists will be the next generation of moneymakers--but only if the oligarchical distribution corporations don't manipulate lawmakers into damming the flow of information with DRM and Copyright laws.
Making information scarce through copyright laws and expensive communications technologies allows these ineffective, bloated companies and their beneficiaries to gain more money and power (Vaidhyanathan). What are communications technologies? Any device or medium that serves as a means to get or give information--from a book to a video game to a text messaging phone.
A person's ability
to send and, especially, receive information should not be limited by
what they can afford or what materials they have the "right"
to obtain, read, cite, copy, and give to others. Why? As
Doctorow's quote at the beginning of this essay indicates: Putting a
price on access to information prevents many people from learning and
enriching their lives. Most of all, making information an
exclusive commodity limits people's ability to communicate.
This, in turn, retards democratic dialog.
If a democracy's populace can't equally get an education or send and receive communications, then only relatively advantaged people can control or add to the public discourse. In addition, the affluent individual's exclusive access to the flow information allows them to search for, take advantage of, and purchase emerging information resources. Today, computers and hand held devices like iPhones are becoming the predominant means of information access and exchange. However, these machines haven't eliminated the need for libraries. In fact, libraries are more important than ever.
creates an ironic caricature of library workers in his comic
fantasy novel Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians. The
"evil" librarians of Sanderson's story keep information
from people in order to maintain control of the known world.
These librarians hide continents-worth of land and ideas from the
earth's people or--as the books protagonist Alcatraz refers to
them--"hushlanders." Fortunately, real librarians try
to do the opposite of Sanderson's scheming library workers.
However, there are real and powerful entities that perform
functions very similar to Alcatraz's fantastical foes.
In his book Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World, Geographer Trevor Paglen attempts to map all the cites around the world associated with United States black operations. Much like Alcatraz's antagonists, secret US government entities have literally and figuratively blacked-out huge parts of the world where covert ops for maintaining US elite power take place. Paglen has attempted to shed light on these dark places. He writes in Blank Spots:
While this book is about state secrecy, it is...about democracy...about how the United States has become dependent on spaces created through secrecy...outside the constitution...outside the democratic ideals of equal rights, transparent government, and informed consent (16).
Paglen also compares the United States' black organizations to monarch dictators who kept trade route maps--i.e. information--secret, in order to maintain their wealth and power. "The "real" maps were the empires' greatest secrets," Paglen writes. "An unauthorized person caught with them could be put to death. The maps...and control over the information they depicted, were instruments of imperial power (12)."
Today, in the post-9/11 world, US executive powers have become imperialistic. They withhold information from the public about the undemocratic activities of black ops and secret organizations. They legitimize these covert activities by telling citizens that secrecy is necessary to protect "freedom" and "democracy." Meanwhile, the US executive branch and its dark operations disregard and abuse the Constitution, which they simultaneously pretend to protect while under public scrutiny. These black organizations dis-empower the masses both in, and out of country by hording their information.
Rest assured, one government institution intrinsically supports transparent government. Insightful American librarians have understood their duty to enable the flow of information for quite some time. Library workers' mission to advocate intellectual freedom through lifelong learning and open access to communication mediums was formalized on June 18th, 1948 in The American Library Association's (ALA) Bill of Rights.
The ideas of equal and open access to information as an essential function of true democracy, which Doctorow, Paglen, and even Sanderson impart through their books, are already actualized through libraries. Fear of losing that equal and open access is, perhaps, what inspired all three of these authors to write their stories.
The United States has entered an age of misinformation and oligarchical cover-ups. However, individuals can check out all three of the texts mentioned above from a public library. Patriotic advocates of intellectual freedom and transparency are fighting back. As usual, libraries are the only government institutions, which really facilitate these patriot's arguments.
Cory Doctorow introduces readers to a new brand of technological activism in current and emerging communication mediums through his fiction. In Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, Doctorow's characters Alan and Kurt attempt to create a free wireless network for an entire city by using spare computer parts, which they find in dumpsters. Doctorow's ideas parallel library interests.
While libraries don't have the resources to provide entire cities with wireless connectivity, they do offer patrons a node by which individuals can access information and communication mediums like eBay or Craig's List on the Internet. So libraries continue to fulfill their ancient role as facilitators of education and the flow of information. They also serve as democratic equalizers, which empower everyone by providing the means for democratic dialog outlined in the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution quoted above.
Many people think of the Internet as a natural replacement for libraries. But Doctorow's vision of equal and open access to personal information technology will most likely never be realized. Corporate and government powers are vast and varied. Take Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft corporations as examples of how business fails to enable the flow of information.
Internet users often depend on the search engines owned by these three companies to find information. However, the resources, which search engines “find” on the Web can't always be trusted. People and organizations can pay to have their websites listed first in search results on Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft's search engines. All three of these corporations let their respective bottom lines take precedence over human rights and intellectual freedom. In a March 13th, 2009 businessweek.com article, Douglas MacMillan wrote:
In well-publicized cases over the past few years,each of these three companies has cooperated with Chinese officials to censor or prosecute Internet users. In 2005, Microsoft deleted the blog of political activist Michael Anti. The same year, journalist Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison after China Yahoo! provided his information to authorities...Google China prevents Web pages from appearing on its search results if they are on the government's blacklist.
Critics of these arguments might believe the Chinese brand of censorship couldn't and wouldn't happen in America. But, given the right price and political incentive, what would stop these companies, as well as US politicians, from limiting or corrupting Americans' equal and open access to information? The answer: Libraries.
Even if a person searching the Internet finds a variety of sources written from different perspectives on MSN or Yahoo, they may not be able to tell the difference between opinion, speculation and useful information. In his SFGate.com City Brights column titled "Crap Detection 101," Howard Rheingold writes:
Unless a great many people learn the basics of online crap detection and begin applying their critical faculties en masse and very soon, I fear for the future of the Internet as a useful source of credible news, medical advice, financial information, educational resources, scholarly and scientific research...We are indeed inundated by online noise pollution, but the problem is soluble.
Rheingold asks his column's readers to learn what he calls "Basic information literacy," or "Crap detection," for evaluating information while searching the Internet's deepening ocean of text, photo, video, and sound information. Learning to evaluate information individually is important. However, Rheingold fails to mention that professional "crap detectives" already exist. They're called librarians. In order to sift through information, a person has to access it in the first place. Equal and open access to electronic resources will be libraries' main patron service in the future.
Poor individuals living in low income areas continue to lack personal access to the books and websites, which the affluent can easily find and afford. That means public library storage and provision capacities will have to serve the entire population's information needs now and in the future. A concept many call "cloud computing" (Pham) is becoming more prevalent among the computer literate these days.
Basically, cloud computing means that a person can use the Internet, via a personal computer, to access servers, which are big computers in other places, that run websites and store lots of information. In other words, a person using the cloud stores and processes information directly through Internet applications and memory available through servers connected by the Internet.
Of course, an
Internet user can't access all information and applications on the
web. Dark political bureaucracies and corporate search engines
prevent equal and open access to information. In fact, these
organizations actively hide and defend information from unwanted
Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter wrote a novel called The Light of Other Days back in 2000. The plot goes like this:
Scientists discover a way to use tiny, quantum cameras to see what anyone, at any point in history is doing. The general public gets a hold of this technology and the whole world changes. With the advent of these quantum cameras, individual and social bias can no longer make history into cohesive, social narratives from single perspectives. Secrets no longer exist. Anyone can know what everyone else is doing.
You'd think Baxter and Clarke's future earth would turn into a sort of hell, where no one had any privacy. However, their novel's quantum cameras usher in a new era of transparency and truth because access to information from an infinite number of perspectives becomes truly equal and open to everyone.
Ideally, the Internet would be today's network of "quantum cameras" for enabling the flow of all recorded information, from a wide variety of perspectives. However, with the US government and Google hiding information, only libraries--and possibly white hat computer hackers--can help everyone access electronic resources.
Most libraries these days have servers that allow John Q. Public to find a wide variety of information and applications--as well as access to useful patrons on the Internet. In turn, libraries are converting print materials, photographs, music, and videos into digital formats that can be accessed Online. Future libraries will help the Internet function like the quantum cameras in The Light of Other Days.
Each library allows its patrons to access items, which it either doesn't have or can't afford, through Inter-Library Loan and courier systems. A huge Online catalog called Worldcat augments the flow of information and items between libraries. Worldcat is somewhat of a staging point for the way libraries will interact in times to come.
Future libraries will become digital networks, in which cloud information is stored, processed, organized, and exchanged. These institutions will pool public funds and use them to purchase servers in order to proffer that information. Meanwhile, they will also provide access to more information, created from a wide variety of perspectives, than Yahoo or...say...The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by buying personal computers for patron use and enabling access to digital resources.
With a little footwork, a poor person can go to an adequately funded library and educate themselves. In addition, they can use patron computers to access communication mediums like Facebook or Email, which will greatly improve their likelihood of success.
For example, let's say a guy named Frank owns a mobile bike repair company. No one has called Frank to fix their bike lately because he's recently moved to a new area. Neither word of mouth, nor flier advertising has produced any results. Frank is strapped for cash, so he can't afford a computer or Internet access. Plus, Frank wouldn't know how to work a computer if he had one. A friend tells Frank about a website called Craig's List, where anyone can post a classified ad for free.
Craig's List has become a common means, by which people in a locality can communicate that they want to buy or sell something. So, when someone needs a bike fixed, they hop on their city's craigslist.org home page and look for someone who charges little, but gives great service. Frank hasn't had any information or access to computers--until he discovers his local library.
The library has Public Access Terminals, which patrons can use to access the Internet. After walking up to his library's Information Desk, Frank asks, "How do I post something on Craig's List?”
A library worker named Sam gets Frank a library card and shows him how to reserve a computer. Overwhelmed, Frank sits down in front of his reserved computer and stares at the screen.
Sam asks Frank, "Can you use a computer alright?"
Frank says, "Nuh uh. I have no idea how to make one of these things work."
Sam says, "Well, let me show you how to use a mouse and keyboard to get on the Internet."
Four weeks later, Frank's bike repairs have tripled because of his Craig's List ad. Frank no longer has to sell his condominium and move somewhere else due to lack of business. In fact, with Frank's added income, he can start using the computer skills he's learned at his library to find a bigger home for a better price on the Internet.
Amendment Two of the ALA Bill of Rights says, "Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval" (ALA-OIF 70).
This ALA amendment is the essence of the democratic equal and open access, which most librarians advocate. It also delineates an environment that enables our example Frank to learn, communicate, and grow his business.
Libraries are the
democratic equalizing tools Doctorow, Clarke, and Baxter allude to in
their fiction. Through libraries, both rich and poor citizens
can find and use a wide array of electronic and print resources.
No matter what oligarchical corporations and political bureaucrats do
stop the flow of information, libraries will continue to serve as
democratic repositories for empowering and educating the masses
through a wide variety of communication mediums. Of course, the
means by which these institutions do so will, ideally, change over
American Library Association, Office for Intellectual Freedom. Intellectual Freedom Manual, Seventh Edition. Chicago: American Library Association, 2006. 70.
Baxter, Stephen and Clarke, Arthur C. The Light of Other Days. New York: Tor Books, 2000.
Doctorow, Cory. "The DRM Sausage Factory." Content. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2008. 27-37.
Doctorow, Cory. Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. New York: Tor Books, 2005. 129.
Lincoln, Abraham. "The Gettysburg Address" Soldiers National Cemetery. Gettysburg, Pennsylvanian. 19 Nov. 1863.
Macmillan, Douglas. "Google, Yahoo Criticized Over Foreign Censorship." Businessweek 13 March 2009. <http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/mar2009/tc20090312_381922.htm>.
Rheingold, Howard. "City Brights: Crap Detection 101." San Francisco Chronicle. 30 June 2009. <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/rheingold/detail?entry_id=42805>.
Paglen, Trevor. Blank Spots on the Map. New York: Dutton, 2009.
Pham, Alex. "Clearing up Cloud Computing." Chicago Tribune. 20 July 2009. <http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/chi-tc-biz-tech-cloud-0710-0720-jul20,0,6240804.story>.
Sanderson, Brandon. Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians. New York: Scholastic Press, 2007.
US Const. Amend. I. Sec. 1. <http://www.usconstitution.net/xconst_Am1.html>.
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. The Anarchist in the Library. New York: Basic Books, 2004.
In : Libraries
Tags: libraries crap detection books publishers websites future science fiction information literacy freedom speech amendment librarians detectives public congress united states constitution ala bill rights cloud computing
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